Do A-levels prepare students for university learning? 61% of students say No

A RECENT survey from FutureLearn has found that nearly two in three sixth-form students (61%) do not feel that A-levels have prepared them for the style or level of learning at university. The survey polled 1000 16-18 year olds about university, courses and career aspirations.
Other findings included that a third of the students were anxious about their course choice and whether or not they would like it, with 40% ranking grades as their biggest fear about university. Only 30%, however, worried about making new friends and a mere 8% listed finding a boyfriend or girlfriend as a worry.

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Photo – Alex Tanton

Certainly the transition from A-levels to degree level learning is a large one, perhaps even larger than the jump from GCSEs to A-levels, which is a more common complaint among students. Questioning the validity of A-levels, not only as preparation for university but as preparation for the increasingly depressing ‘employable’ future, has been a hot debate for years. Many of Michael Gove’s reforms over the last few years were aimed at closing this ‘learning gap’, by creating a more academic post-sixteen environment. The 2009 survey A New Level gave earlier examples of how A-levels create a ‘learn and forget’ culture so that students simply cram for exams rather than retain knowledge.

The response, of course, was that students, being typical millennials, seek constant reassurance and advice about their work rather than functioning as independent learners – as is vital at university once contact hours drop. But with the increase in tuition fees, plummeting job prospects for graduates and interest in practical courses and apprenticeships, one might wonder if academia is worth it?

The survey also questioned students about their financial worries now that the increased tuition fees have been in place for three years. Over half of the surveyed students are concerned about living costs, but a surprisingly low 17% felt worried about their post-graduation job prospects. 52% of students, however, listed earnings as the most important aspect of a career choice. Journalists, teachers and students may complain that A-levels do not give them the intellectual grounding for university, but when employability, prospects and CV-worthy skills are the buzzwords, does intellectual integrity really matter?

The survey did, however, find an increase in interest in technology and computing. Coding and software development were the top of FutureLearn’s survey on career aspirations, with 23% expressing an interest and the more traditional career paths of medicine and law following close behind. With science and coding courses virtually guaranteeing well-paid careers, students may be abandoning academic routes into humanities for greater job security.

The survey does not tell us what courses students feel unprepared for, or give details as to whether it is course structure, work load or lectures that intimidate sixth-formers so much. But the relationship between financial security in the future and academic learning in the present is strained, and students can recognise if their education is failing them.